The Atlanta Falcons were dead last in the NFL last season in rushing yards. They averaged only 77.9 yards per game – 1,247 for the full 16-game schedule. It was a main reason the Falcons were 4-12 in 2013.
A big reason for the struggles was the injury to running back Steven Jackson, who missed four games mainly due to a hamstring issue. Jackson, who was signed to replace Michael Turner, had only 543 rushing yards in 2013. That was Jackson’s worst season in his career.
The Falcons maintain Jackson will be back and healthy this season. But they drafted some insurance in the fourth round of the May draft when they selected FSU running back Devonta Freeman.
Freeman was a big part of Jimbo Fisher’s national title team in Tallahassee last season. Freeman rushed for 1,016 yards in 173 carries, with 14 touchdowns. He also caught 22 passes for 278 yards and had one receiving touchdown.
It was the first time a FSU running back had eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark since Warrick Dunn did it back in 1996.
So what should the Falcons expect from the 5-8, 206-pound running back? He skipped his senior season at FSU but slipped to the fourth round. We all know the trend around the NFL is to bypass running backs early in the draft and to wait around until the fourth round of so to grab one, unless you are in dire straits and there’s a potential star on the board.
The answer to the question about Freeman probably still revolves around Jackson. If the veteran is back and healthy, the Falcons will undoubtedly give Jackson the chance to get the majority of the carries on the ground. But with Jackson 31 years old by the start of the season, he’s already in that “over-30” category that is usually a death sentence for running backs.
That’s why you can expect the Falcons to truly test Freeman this season. If this is Jackson’s last season with the team, the Falcons are going to need to know if Freeman is the heir apparent as the starting running back. If he’s not, the team will likely be in the market for a star running back, either through free agency or in the draft next spring.
Of course, it’s hard to expect rookie running backs to greatly contribute, especially a running back taken in the fourth round. If Freeman gets plenty of carries, it’ll probably mean he’s being effective. The team could easily just through the ball even more (as long as the receivers are healthy) if the running game is once again non-existant.
But Freeman did show promise in the early camp work in Flowery Branch. Even if Jackson is healthy, Freeman does offer a different type of running back with his ability to catch passes and also elude tacklers. He’s more like Dunn than Jackson, which does offer a different dynamic to the offense.
So there’s a good Chance Freeman will be given a significant opportunity to contribute to the offense, even as a rookie. The only thing that could get in the way of that is if Jackson goes back to being a 1000-yard rusher, but even if that happens the Falcons are going to need to know exactly what they need from the fourth round pick out of FSU.
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Bill Shanks has some news and notes from Flowery Branch…